Mayoral Candidate Interview: Helen Gym

Prior to announcing her mayoral candidacy, Helen Gym served six years in City Council. According to her campaign site, Gym is dedicated to improving community safety, which includes taking illegal firearms off the streets, increasing mental-health first responders and other initiatives.

For the next few weeks, PGN will be publishing interviews with the mayoral candidates in the order in which they were completed. Some responses from Gym’s Jan. 5 interview have been edited for length and clarity.

What are the challenges facing Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community, and how will you address them?

I’ve been in partnership with the trans and the LGBTQ+ community for decades. When I was at Asian Americans United, I felt so fortunate to know Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a gay Asian man who taught me how to change the world through technology, healthcare, and community. I’ve learned from queer elders, ancestors, people whom I’ve worked for, and who have worked for me, [and from] unapologetic activists who’ve taken on seemingly impossible situations. 

During my very first month [in City Council], we joined together with LGBTQ+ youth homelessness advocates to talk with young people who are experiencing homelessness. And we advocated for the first budget line item for youth homelessness, which dramatically expanded services and resources in housing for young people. But it’s not only that we show up and work with communities. I’m making sure to advance [their] interests in city government. 

In terms of the biggest challenges, I think there’s a tremendous amount of youth homelessness, in particular. I have been very proud to lead one of the strongest agendas about addressing homelessness amongst LGBTQ+ youth. And I will double down and invest and expand on that dramatically. I am deeply invested in affordable housing and making sure that we’re using every city resource to expand, incentivize and develop actual affordable housing for people. And then, of course, I’m very proud to have built one of — probably — the best eviction-prevention programs in the country, one that had slashed evictions in our city by more than two-thirds. I will continue that work and make sure the issue of housing and homelessness is central to my administration and the work of the city. 

Education, I think, continues to be a very serious issue. I spent so much time making sure [city schools] are safe and inclusive [for young people]. And there’s going to be so much more to make sure that young people in the city have the opportunities that they truly deserve. 

And then the third area would be around health care and in particular, around services for the HIV/AIDS community and making sure that the strength of LGBTQ+ serving healthcare organizations is as strong as can be. Philadelphia is the largest city in the country without a public hospital and we do not have a public-hospital network. So that is why health-care delivery and the strength of LGBTQ+ health-care organizations is so important to me and one of the areas that I’ll lean into as mayor.

What other LGBTQ community leaders and organizations have you worked with in the past?

I would say everything that I have done has involved so many different members and partners within the LGBTQ+ community. I chose to [launch my campaign] at William Way [LGBT Community Center]. And I said it was a place that felt like home for me and it’s been a home for thousands of LGBTQ+ [people]. That is what I need this city to become. Everything that we do has included so many different organizations and groups within the LGBTQ+ community. 

In my very first month of office, I became the chair of a newly created [Children and Youth Committee]. In the middle of January on a freezing day, we went out and worked with Covenant House and Valley Youth House to go out and count youth experiencing homelessness to advocate — along with a whole host of organizations — for expansion of services for LGBTQ+ homeless youth. When we were dealing with the Fair Workweek law, we certainly included [LGBTQ and related organizations] in all of our partnerships, [including William Way, Philly FIGHT, and Mazzoni]. We’ve made sure that when we’re [expanding] labor rights and protections of LGBTQ+ workers, that we are looking at lots of different organizations, individuals and leaders around the city. And [we’re] also focusing on really important institutions. It was important to get that right [and] to make sure that we uplifted the voices of young people from galaei or  — back when it existed — hotpot!, which was serving Asian-American young people. 

When COVID hit, it was critically important to activate all networks of care, especially because the people most likely to be left behind in COVID were the people most likely to be left behind in health care. And that meant leaning in to [organizations]  — whether it’s Philadelphia FIGHT, Mazzoni, and a whole host of different organizations — that were out there providing health care and services to the LGBTQ+ community. This is integral to all the work that we do and [we wanted to] especially make sure that we are working with Black and brown and immigrant LGBTQ+ members. I’ve always been proud to support and celebrate entities that are on the front lines — whether it’s the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative or the Philly Trans March. 

I’ve been very clear that from the moment I came in, my mission was to create a different model of governance from one that we had seen before. I’m a big believer in collaborative governance rather than a top-down model. 

The city of Philadelphia is a vast institution. It covers people from all different walks of life and we cannot possibly know how the policies that we create, no matter what their intent may be, will have an impact in how it will fundamentally change the lives of people. So in my vision around what collaborative governance has looked like, it’s meant that groups are brought in both on the front end in terms of envisioning what budgets can look like; what policies can look like — but also evaluating on the back end. How are they working? Who are we missing? How are we bringing new voices in to continue to diversify, hold ourselves accountable, and become even better at meeting our mission of delivering to every single person? And that means being as inclusive and as dedicated to reaching voices that have not traditionally been heard before, and bringing them to the table and building out a new form of governance as we do so.

In light of the numerous mass shootings, including at Club Q in Colorado and the many mass shootings in Philadelphia, what confluence, if at all, do you see between the issues of hate crimes and gun violence? And how does your approach to gun control address that?

Hate crimes are not individual acts against other individuals, but are acts that are meant to send a message to entire communities. What happens in Florida [or] New York is as impactful on this community, here in Philadelphia. [That’s] why it’s so important to be vigilant and to be clear about how these things are looked at. I also want to be clear that many things are not deemed hate crimes. The attacks against trans people may not specifically be categorized as such, but it is very clearly an act of hate. Violence that is allowed to be manifested and allowed to be perpetuated on people, without a significant outcry, will expand. It will grow and will make all community members vulnerable. So, I’ve always taken hate crimes extremely seriously. 

Now, the gun-violence issue is one that corroborates because obviously someone who hates with a gun is going to be that much more dangerous, that much more devastating to communities. And we’ve seen the consequences of that already here in our own city. I do have a serious issue around the availability of handguns. I’ve been very clear that despite what the state may or may not do, we can do more on stricter scrutiny of permits that are granted. We should have a clear federal county task force on gun purchases. But the most important thing that the mayor can do right now on the issue of gun violence is to lead a coordinated strategy on making sure that we reduce guns on the streets, and that there’s intervention for those who are most likely to be harmed or those most likely to harm others. And that very much includes those who are impacted by hate crimes. 

I firmly believe that the reason our problems in Philadelphia are so significant is because we do a terrible job responding to victims and supporting them. I will completely overhaul how we work with victims and how we handle domestic-violence responses. I think those two areas are deeply connected. We can do so much more to bring forward a restorative healing approach toward victims so that we don’t create a generation of trauma for the next 25 years.

How will you address the issue of violence against trans women, specifically trans women of color?

We’ll take it seriously. As I said before, I’ve made it very clear that I think we have to overhaul how the police, our institutions, and all of our agencies respond and engage with the trans community. I was very aggressive in my legislative role to make sure that we were very clear and proactive around trans policies. I did it specifically around youth and youth-serving organizations, making it clear that they had to have affirmative policies. We want to make sure that both law enforcement and our city agencies are changing, and expanding the ways in which we work with them. 

And then I think the third area is that I want to make our trans-serving organizations as strong as possible. The most powerful thing that we can do is to make sure that the trans community has the strongest advocates in the nation living right here in Philadelphia. That is one of the most important parts to me, that communities become stronger because of the work of the city, that they don’t become more marginalized. My administration will certainly reflect the diversity of the city and my priority is to find ways to continue to build and preserve the community and make it more inclusive of the full diversity of queer people in Philadelphia.

Why should the LGBTQ community give you their vote?

I think I’ve delivered an agenda that has advanced the interests of LGBTQ+ people in city government. We’ve engaged with people in every major policy area, and we won real things. I think the bills that support trans and gender-nonconforming youth are some of the strongest in the country. It requires a law mandating affirmative policies to support trans and gender-nonconforming youth at all organizations that serve young people.

We expanded the city’s anti-discrimination laws. We supported labor organizing, and I made sure that, for example, the city health insurance covered LGBTQ+ couples that are hoping to start a family. The city’s anti-discrimination law now requires City Hall to provide gender-neutral bathrooms, support for health care, and making sure that the new law I passed on privacy will make sure that entities do not deny safe abortions or limit reproductive-health care for trans people. 

[Also, Philadelphia was] the first official recognition of Trans Day of Visibility and I was honored to host the celebration in City Council. I was proud to support the 50th anniversary of Pride to honor [the late] Rita Addessa, a longtime Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Lesbian and Gay Task Force. And she’s a longtime ally and friend. Those are just some of the things I’ve been very active on and [also] making sure that we protect civil rights and address racial diversity. I think all of those things have made my record pretty unparalleled on City Council.

For more information about Helen Gym, visit

This article is a part of Every Voice, Every Vote, a collaborative project managed by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Lead support is provided by the William Penn Foundation with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute, Peter and Judy Leone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the Wyncote Foundation, among others. To learn more about the project and view a full list of supporters, visit Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.
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